COLUMBIA — In the beginning, it was all about the hair.
It was hard to notice anything else about the tall, striking women. Their bright red, coiffed hair drew blatant stares — and that was the point. C.M. Olson, who lived in Cassville, already owned a men’s barnstorming basketball team that played in small towns throughout the country, the Terrible Swedes. The women were his next basketball project. In 1936, he decided he would assemble a women’s team — the All American Red Heads — to promote his wife’s string of hair salons in Missouri and Arkansas.
The team, which went on to play until 1986, will be honored on June 11 as a “Trailblazer of the Game” at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Red Heads were one of the first professional women’s teams, and they barnstormed across the country playing against small-town men’s teams. But the team evolved over the years, moving beyond a beauty salon promotion. It became a showcase for women’s athletic skills, an opportunity for young women from small towns to travel the country.
One thing, though, always remained the same: the hair.
“When people asked who the real redheads were, we’d say, ‘Well, only our hairdresser knows for sure,’” said Kay O’Bryan Burk, who grew up in Cairo and played for the Red Heads from 1972-1976.
In Burk’s time with the team, the Red Heads used Clairol dye, an improvement from the henna that early Red Heads used. But not everyone got the process just right, Burk said, creating a spectrum that ranged from borderline orange to fire-engine red. It wasn’t perfect, but that was part of the image, the charm.
In a way, the Red Heads were just that — an image, somewhat fluid but always a mixture of power and femininity. The earliest Red Heads, who are now deceased, remain only as stories, grainy images like those that appeared in a feature about the team in the April 17, 1939, issue of Life Magazine. The women are tall, thin, wearing silky, high-waisted boyshorts. Their hair is bobbed and ostensibly red, though the black-and-white images leave color to the imagination. Perhaps it’s the quality of the images, or maybe it’s intentional, but the women in those photos look almost like copies of one another, of some ideal Amazon-turned-basketball-player.
For the most part, that image remained. Things like hair dye and uniforms evolved, but the women were always well-dressed and well-manicured. Pat Overman, who grew up in northern Missouri and played for the Red Heads from 1961 to 1973, said that the players knew what was expected of them. They had to dye their hair — unless, like Overman, they were natural redheads. They had to wear feminine clothing, to put on makeup and comb their hair.
Blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick were an integral part of game day uniforms, just another reminder to opponents that yes, they were being beaten by a team of women. But by the end of the game, the makeup was often reduced to streaks of blue and red on the players’ wristbands.
The makeup was impractical, vulnerable to the sweat of athletes putting all of their energy into a game. Because that’s what the Red Heads were doing, and no matter how much was of their image was contrived, they didn’t let it interfere with basketball.
From the start, Olson wanted the team to be about competition. Every woman on the first squad was a high school All-American, and with virtually no opportunities to play in college or professionally, the Red Heads were a great opportunity. Olson wanted his women to win, and they did, trick plays and halftime shows aside. The team played nearly 200 games each year, competing against men’s teams almost every night from October through April. Winning percentages evolved from about 50 percent in the team’s first years to nearly 80 percent in the 1970s.
“They were really the first team to bring it (women's basketball) across the country and establish it as a team that was really only playing men’s teams,” said John Molina, a women’s basketball historian who has documented the Red Heads’ history.
When new owner Orwell Moore bought the team in 1955, he introduced more showmanship to the games. The Red Heads became more theatrical, and the team’s game evolved into one in which they played true basketball in the first and fourth quarters and focused more on trick plays, like riding piggy back, dunking and special passes, in the second and third.
“It was kind of a bit much sometimes,” Burk said. “But we were kind of on stage, to put on a show.”
Ultimately, Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 and phased into schools in the following years, brought about the end of the Red Heads. With more opportunities for women to advance in sports beyond high school, the Red Heads fell out of fashion.
“The girls have so much more to go for now,” Burk said. “Back when I played in high school down in Cairo, we didn’t have districts, state or anything down there. Colleges didn’t come and scout you. There are just so many opportunities out there now for the kids to go on to college or the WNBA.”
Although it’s easy to look back at the uniforms, the makeup and the trick plays as old-fashioned or anti-feminist, at the time they were anything but. The women were paid under their yearly contracts, but Overman said that it wasn’t about the money. It was about the opportunities. The team traveled to places as distant as Niagara Falls, and it was many of the women’s first time traveling out of the Midwest. Life on the road meant days of driving — the team traveled in station wagons and limousines — and practicing ball skills and sprints on the side of the road. But it also meant nights in Alaska when the sun never set and seeing Disney World for the first time. It was the furthest thing from the celebrity and financial incentives of the WNBA and competitive college basketball, but for many of the women, it was the best option at the time.
“I wouldn’t trade any of that experience for anything, but the opportunities they have nowadays are something,” Burk said. “But you don’t know what would have happened anyways if you’d had those chances. To get the experience playing with the Red Heads was just awesome.”
Overman said she’s pleased that the team is being honored next month. She and her husband, former Red Head coach Ben Overman, have booked their travel arrangements to attend the ceremony, and she said it’s nice to be acknowledged as someone who paved the way for female athletes today.
The Red Heads are only one part of the evolution of women’s basketball. Two other groups — the Edmonton Grads basketball club and the Helms Foundation — have been honored as “Trailblazers of the Game,” but the Red Heads’ story is one that needs to be told, Molina said.
When Molina was a child, he would climb the stairs to his grandmother’s attic to look at an aging photograph of his grandmother as a young woman, dressed in her basketball uniform. She played for a team at the soap factory where she worked during the Depression, and that picture formed the foundations of Molina’s interest in women’s basketball. His work has helped to publicize the Red Heads’ history and give them the recognition they’re now receiving.
“While I couldn’t capture her (his grandmother’s) story, I could capture other stories of the history of the game and help educate others about it,” Molina said.
The story he has uncovered goes beyond that first image, beyond the hair, makeup and pageantry. It’s one of history, of a team that was formed just 16 years after women earned the right to vote. That history continues through reunions, websites, books and grainy photographs. The Red Heads have become a sort of aging family. While aspects of their game have become obsolete, Overman said that she hopes its passion for basketball is something that the sport never loses.